The tale of a PoW

The tale of a PoW

Keith Gregson’s great-uncle left a unique record of his experiences as a prisoner of war in World War One, as we discover in this exclusive book extract

Keith Gregson, An experienced historian, writer and musician

Keith Gregson

An experienced historian, writer and musician

John Stephens was working in the furniture section of the Cooperative Wholesale Society in Liverpool when war broke out in August 1914. In November of the same year, he married Millicent (Lily) Swindale – a girl from back home in Millom. He enlisted in the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment in November 1915 but was not mobilised until March 1917 as private No 203228 in the KLR’s 12th Battalion. John began service on the Western Front in late 1917 as part of a Lewis gun crew and was unfortunate enough to be just to the south west of St Quentin when the Germans began their determined if ultimately unsuccessful ‘final push’ on the Western Front in March 1918. On 24 March he was taken prisoner.

Between the time of his capture and his return to the family’s home base in Cumberland at the end of November 1918, he kept a detailed account of all that happened to him.The tale that follows is based wholly on extracts from that account:

From left, Fred, John and Charlie Stephens, pictured at Millom, Cumberland in 1919. All three left diaries of their experiences in World War One –Fred as a sapper in Gallipoli, John as a prisoner of war, and Charlie in India. Fred was Keith Gregson’s grandfather

23 March 1918
Dug trench for Lewis gun. Officer had wind up, produced his revolver to show us he wasn’t nervous. HA HA. Didn’t see him any more. Jerry got very lively toward evening – we escaped damage. Troops up above suffered heavily. 8 of us found m[achine] gun man wounded so took him to Ham. Passed through several villages, all troops gone and aid posts. Borrowed (?) ladder to carry man, finished up with a stretcher on a wooden barrow. Very long journey, poor chap in a mess.

24 March 1918
Gun posts outside Ham. 4 of us slept in empty house until 6 am. Left at 6.40. Jerry in the vicinity so hooked it. Walked north for some miles but found Jerry ahead of us. 5 of us captured 8.30. 3 Jerrys to each man – all provided with revolvers. One asked me if I was a gentleman. Naturally I said yes. My captors let me keep my knife and haversack. Other fellows lost theirs. Just after capture, Jerry’s army attacked by three planes – hot stuff also heavy mc fire from Jerry. We stayed by wagon and escaped any damages – ordered by Jerry officer to walk back alone. Walked all day past thousands of troops, foot, cavalry, guns, pontoons etc. Jerry very good so far – always gave us water first before having their share. Officer gave us drink from his flask. Lots of troops could speak English fluently. Saw lots of our dead lying around. Exchanged my putties for three cigars, finished up my biscuits, first feed for the day.

Soon after capture, the men of the 12th KLR were placed together with other prisoners. For the following few weeks they were kept locally, put to work firstly on a railway then on a canal. They survived mainly on barley soup and water:

An official card sent home from John stating that he is a POW. The car took nearly three months to arrive

10 May 1918
Up 5.30. Extra fine morning – work on the new railway – a good time. Dinner at 3 – boiled fruit – jam for tea – still 6 to a loaf. Saw aeroplane brought down in flames. Saw Jerry’s observation sausage brought down – daren’t show delight – some of Jerrys vexed.

Little changed during May although the quality of both food and drink gradually started to improve. By early June, they were still near Ham and billeted in a chateau.

The big change came in the middle of June. After three months of captivity, the prisoners were gathered together in a large group and entrained in trucksfor Germany. The journey took a couple of days and John noted that they passed through Strasbourg and Colmar:

15 June 1918
Up at 4 am – soup and twelve to a loaf – rations cut down owing to fellows stealing bread. Entrained in trucks (covered) at 7.30 for Germany travelling two days. Plenty of straw to lie on. Excellent meals on the journey – best since captured – meat, fruit, barley, bread and macaroni at different stops on the journey. Prisoners help themselves with coffee – great idea. Feeding arrangements splendid for long journey.

Within a few days John was settled in a camp close to Freiburg and the Rhine and seemed relatively happy for the first time, noting the following in his diary:

18 June 1918
Lovely country, loads of fruit on the roadside… Reveille at 4.30. Huts and beds to clean by 6.30. Bkfast at 7 of soup, extra good and buckshee. Walked to neighbouring town for bath and fumigation. Crossed the Rhine. Straw beds provided during afternoon. For the first time since capture felt clean. Slept without trousers. Lovely country, loads of fruit on the roadside.

Things then took a turn for the worse. His legs began to swell and he was placed in a civilian hospital for some considerable time. He was not the only prisoner to suffer: on 27 June he recorded that deaths average two or three a day. By early July, his health had begun to improve and he started to help around the hospital – mostly by dressing wounds and peeling potatoes. Then stomach problems set in and he wrote:

6 July 1918
Sim from camp didn’t know me. Thin, eyes sunk back and ½ inch beard. Had the wind up when I saw myself in a glass. Didn’t expect to get better.

This ill health continued until the middle of July when he returned to the main camp and began to teach himself shorthand. Soon he was on light duties and in early August became part of a work detail taken into the local town:

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August 1918
Glorious morning. Up at 5.30. Went with eight fellows and one guard to Freiburg for blankets. Grand ride in train. Spoke to Jerry who had been at Gun Farm (Whyschette). Freiburg lovely town, splendid countryside, large palm trees. Soldiers gave me bread, cigarettes and barley soup. Bread from a nun. Whilst sitting on the stairs in a café, German waitress said ‘Ullo,Tommy’. She had been to Liverpool, London and USA. Quite homely. Arrived back at 8.30. Civi gave me apple. Spoke to a fellow at the station – idea one of our spies.

By the middle of August he had been put to work at unloading iron beams. The work was hard but, by now, John was sensing that things were not going well for his captors. On 25 August he noticed Jerry engineers clothes made of paper .

About this time he was given a job working in a photographic shop where the Germans were taking pictures of men about to go up the line. He was rarely short of food now but the sounds of war were getting increasingly closer. By September he had an inkling that the war was turning against the Germans:

Once John’s wife Lil knew that he was alive and a prisoner, she contacted the local voluntary war service bureau in Liverpool. This ran a scheme for sending parcels to prisoners – although, alas, in John’s case none of the parcels or letters she sent ever reached him

3 September 1918
Rumours of USA advance. Jerry’s observation balloon seen in the distance.

Now adept at scrounging cigarettes, cigars and extra food, he was moved from the photographic shop and ordered to clear the ground for a landing strip for German planes.

By the middle of September, food had started to be rationed and his greatcoat had been stolen – by a German he suspected. Incarceration was also taking its toll:

23 September 1918
Weighed on scale at dump. 8 stone all on. Must have been 7st in hospital. Terrible.

By October he was involved in maize and potato production, and making do and mend as far as food was concerned. Talk of a peace conference was also rife. And there was still time for mischief:

19 October 1918
Boiled spuds at 10.30. Roast ditto at 1. Packed some beauties inside my shirt – or all that is left of one – also coat pockets. When we arrived back at farm, Jerry sergt had us searched – result exit potatoes.

By late October, confusion reigned.The prisoners were moved out into billets near Saarbrücken and virtually abandoned.

They went out in parties to scrounge for food and became increasingly reliant on the generosity of the civilian population. John was billeted in a glassworks when he wrote the following entry on a day forever etched in world history:

11 November 1918
Up at 6.30. Misty. Coffee and bread and jam at 7. Can see into the town from our window. Rumours of Kaiser and C Prince giving up throne to the socialists. Orders to take it quietly before moving again. Jerry officer came up to tell war finished. English, French and German evac. Hurrah! Lovely day like summer. Gloomy thoughts about home. Rumours about Old Bill and family in Holland. Gave word of honour to officer not to attempt to run away. Sent us with guards without rifles – first time since prisoner for a good walk through town and out into the country through a big wood – any amount of stumps – Christmas trees growing a treat. Jerry guards short of wind and same Tommy. Lamps were lighted in the town tonight.

12 November 1918
Up at 6.15. WC twice. Nice morning. Four to loaf. Sudden orders to move at 12.Train (2nd class) to Fosbach and joined other prisoners bound for home. Most of these chaps had had their parcels and took pity on us. Two boys gave Lovell and I such a feed of fish, flesh, biscuits and real butter – fit for a king – full for the first time in five weeks – nearly bust. Too full to sleep – stayed one night in a large hall and cleaned officers’ boots.

13 November 1918
Up at 5.30. Officer in command told us we could wait about 14 days for a train if we liked or walk to French lines in four or five days. Decided on the latter. Started at 7.30 – walked to St Avola nineteen kilos and stayed the night. Saw a long train of Jerry soldiers decorated with red flags – they gave us a cheer. Our guards dumped their rifles and pack on a cart – some got drunk. Supposed to march four deep did that for about fifty yards then strolled as we liked with our bundle of rags. Lavelle and I drummed up rest of spuds and flesh. Had a good sleep. Stayed in large stables – sort of racing establishment. Was called in the house by a civi and given fried potatoes – no need for peelings now. Heel and toe getting sore. Boys enjoyed big campfire of shavings etc before turning in.

By 16 November he had limped south-westwards to Nancy and into American hands. His feet were so badly swollen that he had to wear a size nine boot on one foot and a size seven on the other. The Americans insisted that he wait for an ambulance train. On 19 November, he reached Calais where he remained until crossing the Channel on the afternoon of 24 November. After being medically discharged as ‘B3’ at Dover, he began the last leg of his journey:

27 November 1918
Parade for train about 10. Broke journey at Willesden Jnct. Gave Gran and all a fright. First news of Lil and mother for over 8 months.

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28 November 1918
Caught midday train W Junct for Millom. Arrived at Millom during the evening. Lil surprised me at Green Road. Great welcome.

Once home, he was still officially ‘on leave’. During this time he relied to a great extent on his Repatriated Prisoner of War’s Leave or Duty Ration book which contained stamps for cheese, jam, tea, meat and lard. Many of the stamps have been used.

On 18 March 1919, he returned his greatcoat and on 8 April 1919 was transferred to the reserve and signed off at Preston. For the following 12 months he received a pension of 15s a week.

In 1919, a booklet was produced in Liverpool analysing what had happened to the men from the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment who had become prisoners of war. The account there tallies closely with John’s experiences. For the first three months of captivity he was used on manual labour near to the front lines as the Germans kept up hopes of further advances. By the time he was sent to a camp in Germany, the German war effort had begun to unravel and what organisation there was gradually melted away leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves.

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